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BOOK IN FOCUS
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Michael Kindellan. The Late Cantos of Ezra Pound: Composition, Revision, Publication. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. xx+276p. £85. ISBN 9781474258746. 

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review by Massimo Bacigalupo

 

 

Michael Kindellan’s study is a brilliant account of a fascinating story: how the writing and publishing of the late cantos came about among countless biographical and textual obstacles and conundrums. Pound emerges in full as the problematic source of the text,  trying to control, direct, compose his life and his major work, and only succeeding in part on all fronts. But the drama of the battle is well worth watching and recounting. Besides marshalling a prodigious amount of chiefly textual facts, Kindellan advances a proposal for a new approach to reading and editing Pound. So his book makes also a difference in our approach to the man and the poem and can therefore be considered a milestone in the long story of Pound studies. By looking so carefully at the text, Kindellan can for once set aside the whole subject of Pound’s “opprobrious politics” (97), of which one hears to no end these days, and takes us in that uncomfortable space which is the pages of The Cantos, where finally we get back to work, watching in amazement as draft becomes typescript becomes print and volume – and endless agonizing discussion and anger and wonder. 

The Late Cantos has four chapters, with apt Poundian phrases as titles: 1. “I have always loathed reading”; 2. “‘To copy and amplify’: Section: Rock-Drill”; 3. “‘No, that is not textual’: Thrones”; 4. “Or true editions?”. Chapter 1 is chiefly about Pound’s misreading and resistance (or animus) towards philology, which he caricatured as the nitpicking of drudges, “obscuring the texts with philology.” The Cantos, largely composed as it is of reports on Pound’s reading, is written by a man who loathes the act of reading as such and instructs a would-be translator “dont bother about the WORDS, translate the meaning” (13). A habitual misreader who inevitably invests quotations and ideograms with  idiosyncratic interpretations, Pound does not allow for any freedom of the sort in his own readers, who must “git the ideaHHHHH” (226), share his convictions, and know what he means regardless of the text and its corruptions. Kindellan, in the impressive theoretical scaffolding of his book, brings up the distinction between “text” and “work” (229), the former the concern of philology, the latter an ideal, even metaphysical, entity, “now in the mind indestructible.” Thus it is a mistake to think of The Cantos as an opera aperta (Umberto Eco’s phrase), i.e., open to infinite interpretations. There is only one meaning, and it is the one Pound intended. And this (the work) “coheres all right / even if my notes [the text] do not cohere.” 

Kindellan in the opening chapter considers closely the strange Chou King cantos (85-87), studded with ideograms, claiming generally that “when Pound offers in-text references to external sources he is not in fact admonishing his readers to consult independently the passages to which he refers; normally, Pound is attempting to relieve us of that obligation” (39). All we have to do is accept his word about what a text proves or means. Now, it is true that if we look at the source we will often discover that Pound’s interpretation is wide of the mark, but one still can defend the analogy of The Cantos with a set of lecture notes for some ten courses (one per installment). As a class, we are supposed to procure the text under discussion. But this teacher, being authoritarian, as doubtless many lecturers are when telling students about “Sailing to Byzantium” or “After Apple-Picking,” expects us to unquestioningly accept his findings. 

Kindellan has studied very carefully the notebooks containing drafts of these cantos and shares valuable discoveries (and unpublished fragments). On pages 29-32 he reproduces a section of a page from Couvreur’s Chou King, Pound’s notes in the relevant spiral notebook, and a page of the proofs of the Milan 1955 Rock-Drill. He does so to prove a rather esoteric point (unconvincing to this reader) about Pound copying in his notes the accents in Couvreur’s transliterations of Chinese and adding these accents irregularly by hand to his typescripts and proofs. But the possibility of seeing the text go through its various longhand, typescript, proof and published incarnations is per se arresting. In his final chapter about projected editions of The Cantos Kindellan envisages, in the footsteps of his mentor Richard Taylor, an online archive in which it would be possible to inspect all of these variant forms, and all materials related to given readings (correspondence, published and unpublished prose, etc. etc.). This is mind-boggling though not impossible since Pound curiously hoarded most of his notes and drafts, and archives over the two hemispheres are rich in materials of all kinds for the inquisitive (“serious,” as Pound would say) researcher. Kindellan is surely one of this elect company, as his painstaking references to archives chiefly in Italy, Germany, England and the U.S. prove. He offers a wealth of material, as well as a method and a theory for other “wandering clerics.” (He is less thorough with his own book. I tried to locate through his index a quotation from Mary de Rachewiltz that had struck me, unsuccessfully, for the quote is on page 193, and the index lists no reference to her after page 142. I hasten to add or repeat that Kindellan’s scholarship is impressive.) He is also witty in a subdued way, quoting for example G. Thomas Tanselle in a note on page 229: “The world of documents is a world of imperfection,” and adding: “This book being no exception!” 

That Pound was witty is proved often in these pages, so in Kindellan he has found an unusually sympathetic reader, who can suspend disbelief long enough to situate himself (and us) on Pound’s wavelength. In any case, for a subject so complicated, intricate and esoteric, Kindellan’s account is extraordinarily error-free from the scholarly and interpretative point of view. (The references to secondary sources, i.e., the whole range of Pound studies, are exceptionally thorough.) Besides, this book is unusually well-written, so that there is hardly a page that does not provide a perceptive comment or quotation.  And since, as Kindellan admits, he does not overtly engage in interpretation, there is little repetition and soul-searching about Pound’s subjects and beliefs. There is just “the event of writing” (99) occurring under our eyes. Conclusions are drawn unblinkingly but not dwelt upon: “These manuscripts ... are also sincere in the modern sense of displaying an absence of ‘dissimulating, feigning or pretence’: ... Pound puts Hitler at heaven’s door, a decision that shows the limitations of sincerity as a sole criterion for ethical care” (93, 95). One could object that only the skilled in fire will discover the Führer in canto 90’s “beer halls” and “furious ... perception.” Pound is tricky and covers his traces on taboo subjects. 

The paranoid character of the late cantos is also addressed by Kindellan: written in a madhouse, secretly disseminated, hidden even from long-standing supporters. The publication of Rock-Drill in Milan by twenty-year-old Vanni Scheiwiller was also intended to spite Laughlin and Eliot. Considering possible publishers, the poet wrote his daughter in November 1954, when he was about to mail the Rock-Drill typescript to Vanni: “certainly NOT Mr Eliot/ Mr Eliot can buy it if he likes/ He has left the Kung/ Anthology out of print for five years ...” (115). However, we find that Pound’s suspicions were partly shared even by James Laughlin, who attributes to Pound’s enemies delay in printing cantos, and communicates that his new printers “have no objections and don’t foresee any pressure from their union, which is not Jew controlled” (110 — letter to Olga Rudge, date not given). Just as Hemingway at the end believed he was watched by the FBI (and he was right), so with Pound, given his polarized circumstances, it is hard to tell truth from paranoia. 

Still, it is surprising to find out that Pound actually feared being caught in error by the professors whom he despised, as if anyone would ever take the trouble of reading Thrones to discover wrong spellings of Greek words! But this Pound believed, while on the other hand insisting on idiosyncratic spellings for poetic effect, as in the famous Leucothea/Leucothoe imbroglio. Kindellan’s discussion of Rock-Drill and Thrones really boils down to illuminating analyses of a few central cruces, like oinos aithìops and xaladines in canto 97, epos vs. eros in 102, “wars after ’70” in 103, Chinese transliterations in 99 (the entire discussion of the Sacred Edict cantos is exemplary), Deianira in 87. Pound is unaccountably scared of scholars: “At any rate it will be a field day for the Spitzes [Leo Spitzer?] and Shitzerald’s [Robert Fitzgerald?], if grampaw don’t correct Mr Storr, and if he corrects him wrong” (to Scheiweiller on Deiainira, 21 April 1955, p. 118). Actually “Mr Storr,” editor of the Loeb Trachiniae, was not in error, only Pound did not know the difference between upper- and lower-case representation of iota subscript, which I’m pretty sure Scheiwiller did. Pound goes on: “at any rat [sic] there is a cedilla under the atah … wich we HAVE got indisputably.” Kindellan comments: “Pound’s publishers never did insert a ‘cedilla’ (iota subscript) under the eta in any of his texts” (118). Here for once he is wrong, unless I misread him: both the Scheiwiller Rock-Drill (31) and the Faber 1964 Cantos (607) do have a rightful iota subscript in Deianira (“Δάνειρα”); only the New Directions text omits it, which is rather strange since it is supposed to be an offprint of the Scheiwiller edition. But if you look closely at page 571 of the 1973 New Directions volume you will see that the Greek in the last two lines is in a different typeface, more like italic, than the Greek at the top of the page. So for some reason the two lines were reset, and here the error (sabotage!?) occurred. (Confirming, if needed, that the current New Directions text is the most unreliable Cantos ever printed.) 

In his final chapter on editions, Kindellan recounts the strange tale of the misguided attempts to correct The Cantos, based on the crazy idea that spellings and even facts had to be checked against reliable sources, and perhaps notes were to be introduced explaining that some statement was not really accurate. We see that Pound did on and off demand a few sparse corrections, but rightly believed that his message was pretty clear despite some inaccuracies (his fear of being faulted by the profs is another matter). But then, the moment Pound ceased to be able to express an opinion on these matters, which was as early as 1959, the “editorial committee” (216-27) set to work. The letters exchanged and quoted here are revealing of the fact that these well-meaning correctors did not understand that an imaginative work is not bound to any external standard but its own processes, and that even lapses of attention and involuntary errors are significant as reflecting the act of writing under given peculiar circumstances. What is more alarming is that the correctors knew so little about Pound’s intentions and sources, so for example in the penultimate page of canto 96 “know the Manuel” (manuel is from Pound’s French source) is “corrected” to “know the Manuale.” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing (here the corrector believed that Pound wanted an Italian word and went on without a scruple to change the text accordingly). But as Mary de Rachewiltz usefully noted in the statement I spoke of above: “it can be safely assumed that the last spontaneous ‘corrections’ made by Pound himself were in Thrones, Canto 103” (i.e. the “wars after ’70” affair, in 1959). So, though one sympathizes with Kindellan’s dream of a hypertext that will contain all the tales of the tribe in their countless incarnations, a more realistic project would be convincing Pound’s publishers to reprint The Cantos as it was before the correctors had their field-day. What they perpetrated is scarcely relevant to the story of the text, though it tells us a lot about (mis)conceptions of it. And about ignorance. 

On the other hand, Kindellan’s knowing and balanced account provides a timely incentive to new scholarship and new readings. What he has accomplished is no less than a change of paradigm. This substantial book has reminded me of the simple and welcome fact that reading in (and about) Pound can be fun.